Hit Hokkaido’s slopes for tasty seasonal fare

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

Kutchan, near Niseko, is probably the only town in Japan where convenience stores stock pinto beans and Vegemite. In fact, Hokkaido’s ski paradise, internationally known for its powder snow, is steadily forging a new reputation, one bite at a time.

Ten years ago, food fare in Hirafu, the main resort area of Kutchan, was limited to Japanese pubs and chicken on a stick. Now there are more than 100 restaurants across the four ski areas catering to locals and tourists, and discerning foodies can choose from a variety of international dishes. Traditional Japanese choices are of course still in abundance, helping the area’s après-ski reputation gain favorably on its Champagne powder renown.

“With Niseko and Hirafu becoming more international, we expect this trend to grow with better chefs moving to town, more international restaurants and, overall, a better food experience,” says Nicolas Gontard, director of Niseko’s Odin Properties.

Although the presence of wealthy foreign investors and the real-estate boom of luxury second homes certainly helps cultivate culinary quality, it’s the homegrown vibe that separates Hirafu from its more impersonal high-class counterparts.

“People want to have that authentic discovery of a fledgling Japanese ski town,” says James Gallagher, owner of Ezo Seafoods, located in the heart of Hirafu’s après-ski hot spot, Momiji Street. “They like the funky little bars and eateries, many of which are family-run, that have real soul.”

Gallagher believes there’s an authenticity that makes Hirafu special.

“The snow is truly world class; we want to extend a warm local welcome to make the whole experience something genuinely memorable,” he says.

Ezo Seafoods (www.ezoseafoods.com) excels at warm welcomes. Gallagher greets each customer at the door, and they often know him by name. A night at Ezo naturally starts with seafood. Gallagher directs his customers to glass cases overflowing with choices — from sea urchin to salmon to tuna — all handpicked that morning from Hokkaido’s best fish markets and local fisheries.

“The atmosphere is what you crave while on holiday — it’s comfortable yet dripping with quality,” says Australian customer Jack Burston. “You want to come back and you want to bring your friends.”

Ezo specialities include raw Akkeshi oysters (Gallagher will shuck them himself) and a Hokkaido favorite, red king crab legs.

Gallagher’s wife, Keiko Takaoka, is the head chef. She comes from a family that has cultivated rice for seven generations in Japan. Also a recent graduate of a summer course at the Luis Irizar Cooking School in the Spanish coastal town of San Sebastian, Takaoka has become known for a simplicity and flair in her cooking, which matches the fresh taste of Ezo’s produce.

Leaving Ezo Seafoods for a culinary tour of Hirafu, Momiji Street is where it’s at — for both food and convenience.

Come straight off the hill into a wonderland of treats. Want a coffee without taking off your boots? Stroll into Niseko Supply Company and enjoy a country-style home-baked creperie featuring local ingredients. More than just pastries, Niseko Supply Company (www.facebook.com/TheNisekoSupplyCompany) offers signature crepes or galettes paired with everything from coffee to Champagne, a baguette and its popular potato-onion soup. Or even try fondue and raclette set menus, which are available at dinner.

Looking for something more down-home and substantial? Niseko Pizza (www.nisekopizza.jp) satisfies with more than 30 kinds of authentic handmade pizzas. Homemade pasta and a choice of sides admirably complement the pies. Niseko Pizza also delivers, just in case your last run of the day sends you home early for a hot bath at the local onsen.

Next door to Ezo Seafoods is Niseko Ramen (www7.plala.or.jp/nisekoramenmount), which offers yet another authentic taste of Hokkaido. Attracted to the snow and abundance of nature, chef Kazuhiro Sagara moved to the area with his wife, Hiromi, nine years ago. After working at various restaurants for three years, Sagara spent six months developing his specialty, what the locals refer to as “potato ramen.”

“Miso ramen originated in Hokkaido, and potato is also a local specialty,” Sagara explains. “I wanted to somehow combine potato with miso ramen, but it was difficult to match the tastes.”

Sagara eventually created a true Niseko original: potato-cream vichyssoise topped over steaming, hearty miso. The result resembles the white blanket of a snow-covered field, and the taste is uniquely delicious and filling after a morning on the slopes.

For a more upscale authenticity, look no further than the Michelin-starred Kamimura, a two-minute walk from Ezo Seafoods, just off Momiji Street. Chef Yuichi Kamimura, who grew up in the town of Asahikawa, where his parents ran a small steakhouse, resisted the call to be a chef for many years.

“I grew up in the kitchen basically, as I had no where else to go,” he says. “My parents spent six days a week cooking and I spent all day watching them work so hard, and I thought, ‘There must be better things out there than being a cook.’ ”

Kamimura graduated from high school and spent five years in the United States (“for rock ‘n’ roll and English”) before returning to Asahikawa at 23 years old. He still didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life, but he worked in his father’s restaurant for two years to save money and took his Japanese chef’s license.

At that point, Kamimura decided to break away from cooking, and went to Australia looking for work in import and export, hoping to use his English skills.

“I didn’t see any reason to work in a Japanese restaurant in Australia; that’s why I went to Australia, to change my career path,” he says.

Work was hard to find and his money was running out. However, he happened to see a newspaper advertisement seeking an apprentice to a Japanese chef.

“Before that, I had no need for fine dining, I was always happy to eat McDonald’s,” he says. “So this was something really different for me.”

The apprenticeship was under the renowned Tetsuya Wakuda, who is based in Sydney. Kamimura subsequently fell in love with French cuisine and told his mentor that he wanted to open a restaurant like his in Hokkaido. Five years later he did exactly that.

In December 2007, he relocated from Sapporo to Niseko and opened Kamimura (www.kamimura-niseko.com), which features French dégustation fare consisting of seasonal specialities from the Hokkaido countryside. Kamimura has gradually developed his own authentic local style.

“At first, the style of my cooking was modern French and I was using ingredients from all over the world,” he says. “But people come here for local food, so I now focus on using ingredients from local farmers. I don’t use foie gras or truffles as much, as I can get great cheese products or dairy from this area.”

Don’t miss this elegant fusion of local and haute monde, but be sure to make a reservation.

There’s no leaving Hirafu without mentioning a few more favorites. The Barn (www.nisekobarn.com) is an authentic French alpine bistro housed in a gorgeous glass-and-wood barn-shaped building in the center of town. It’s known for its elegant food and extensive wine list, which includes some from the owner’s vineyards in Burgundy, France.

A-Bu-Cha 2 (www.abucha.net) is known for local favorites such as salmon and butter corn nabe (hot pot), and squid with garlic mayonnaise sauce. It’s the top izakaya-style (Japanese-pub style) grill in Hirafu.

If you’re still craving izakaya fare such as yakitori, look no further than Bang-Bang (www.niseko.or.jp/bangbang) on the main Hirafuzaka Street. With Japanese beef and local Hokkaido sausages also on the menu, you’ll get more than just chicken on a stick.

Even the street vendors are a treat, hawking their wares from colorful vans — everything from naan to hot dogs — you can indulge right there on the street.

Hit the slopes for a little night skiing to work up an après-ski appetite. Your taste buds will thank you in the morning even if your legs don’t.

Watanabe’s Niseko is home sweets home

It seems everywhere you turn you can find distinctive Niseko culinary authenticity. One local favorite is Mari Watanabe, a wagashi (Japanese-style sweets) confectioner who’s already a local celebrity.

Watanabe grew up in Sapporo and only left Hokkaido briefly to study making traditional wagashi at Osaka’s Fujiseika Vocational School. Returning to Sapporo, Watanabe trained at a traditional wagashi shop before moving to Niseko five years ago. She only sells from home a few times a month, accepting pre-orders and selling the rest within hours.

For those in Tokyo, Watanabe does sell seasonally with Shinjuku’s Isetan Department Store — and she’s just finished a special holiday run of snowflake-shaped sugared wagashi — but she prefers to sell local. Already the author of two books on the sweets, Watanabe’s dediation to authenticity has won her many followers.

“Everyday I work while looking at the view outside the window of the workshop I make sweets in,” she says. “During the summer, the color of the leaves changes every day. During winter as well, the light changes and sometimes it snows, so the view is really different although it’s the same landscape. I believe that I feel these things with my body and it is naturally reflected in the sweets that I make.”

For information on Mari Watanabe’s shop, visit matsukaze.upas.jp.